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The Content Inventory is Your Friend

by Kristina Halvorson on March 2nd, 2009

Every time I give a seminar about writing for the Web, I talk about the content inventory (also sometimes called a "content matrix"). And every time I do, inevitably I get an email from someone that says, basically, "The content inventory has CHANGED MY LIFE."

I know many, many people who would rather stab themselves in the eye with a pencil than be responsible for a large-scale content inventory. Me, I’m weird. I love ‘em.

A content inventory is nothing more than a spreadsheet that captures each web page or content module you’re responsible for creating, reviewing, or caring for. It usually looks like this (click image to enlarge):

content-inventory

When does the content inventory come in handy?

At the beginning of a project
Before anyone commits to any content at all, a content strategist, information architect, web editor or web writer should conduct a content audit of all current web content. The output of that audit is a content inventory.

Ideally, the source content isn’t just being catalogued (quantified) but also carefully analyzed (qualified) for accuracy, consistency, relevance, voice and tone, and so forth.

This exercise gives the entire project team a very clear understanding of what there is to work with, which in turn should inform content strategy, schedule, and scope.

During information architecture (IA)
As any seasoned web project manager will tell you, the number one killer of both budgets and schedules is usually content. It’s far too easy for the IA to draw boxes that suddenly create nightmarish, impossible content requirements. With an accurate content inventory of proposed IA requirements, everyone can keep an eye on what’s really being proposed and what’s actually possible.

During content development
Web writers everywhere: Do not, repeat, DO NOT begin writing for a website or CMS without a content inventory. Opening up a Word doc and diving in will inevitably cause you heartache and despair. Having a clear list of what you need to create, how it’s structured, and associated requirements will make you a much happier camper.

If you’re not handed a content inventory by someone on the project team, step up and create it yourself. You will immediately become everyone’s new best friend.

Then, you can structure your documents using the same labeling or numbering system as the content inventory (which, in turn, should use the same system as the information architecture documentation). Dreamy, right?

Forever
Even if you have a big, expensive content management system, it still may be useful for you to maintain a content inventory. Simply having all of your web content assets listed in one place can help you see important content attributes at-a-glance, like who owns what, or what still needs updating.

It’s also an outstanding way to keep up with your ever-evolving web presence. Lou Rosenfeld makes a great case for the "rolling content inventory," saying that "we’ve got to get used to the reality that ongoing, partial content inventories are likely to be far more cost-effective than trying to achieve the perfect, all-encompassing snapshot of our content."

Yes, it’s manual, but ultimately, what really improves an organization’s web content is human oversight, not automated technology. The content inventory requires a live person to catalog and comment on content. This, I believe, is a very, very good thing.

Reach out and hug a spreadsheet
Jeff Veen called creating a content inventory "a mind-numbing odyssey through your website." I actually think it’s more like an enlightening journey. What do you have? What do you need? What don’t you need? Where can things improve?

I’m not saying it’s not painful. But sometimes, the truth hurts.

This portion of "Tough Love" brought to you by MS Excel.

  • Lisa L. Trager

    I agree, although the actual “doing” can feel after awhile like being stuck in purgatory, there is no better way to get a handle on the current “as-is” state of a site. Taking this deep dive enables one to start seeing the potential for the future redesign and get insight into 1) questions for stakeholders; b) questions to address in market research; c) ideas for the future redesign including messaging, functionality, and segmentation of users.
    I’m with you Kristina, I actually like doing content audits because for me there is no better foundation from which to evolve recommendations for the future state. Without a clear understanding of what is in the current as-is state and seeing what works, what doesn’t and where the gaps are and what needs to be done to make improvement in content, client deadlines are often jeopardized.

  • Lisa L. Trager

    I agree, although the actual “doing” can feel after awhile like being stuck in purgatory, there is no better way to get a handle on the current “as-is” state of a site. Taking this deep dive enables one to start seeing the potential for the future redesign and get insight into 1) questions for stakeholders; b) questions to address in market research; c) ideas for the future redesign including messaging, functionality, and segmentation of users.
    I’m with you Kristina, I actually like doing content audits because for me there is no better foundation from which to evolve recommendations for the future state. Without a clear understanding of what is in the current as-is state and seeing what works, what doesn’t and where the gaps are and what needs to be done to make improvement in content, client deadlines are often jeopardized.

  • http://ianwaugh.tumblr.com Ian Waugh

    This arrived at the perfect time for me Kristina, as I’m just about to start a content review myself.
    I’m not sure I actually ‘enjoy’ creating the inventory, but I love what it allows me to do when I have it finished!

  • http://ianwaugh.tumblr.com Ian Waugh

    This arrived at the perfect time for me Kristina, as I’m just about to start a content review myself.
    I’m not sure I actually ‘enjoy’ creating the inventory, but I love what it allows me to do when I have it finished!

  • http://www.gumption.com Jennifer b.

    You must find out what you have before you can do anything with it. Sites that have not conducted content audits or kept their inventory up-to-date tend to be adept at showing the internal company silos all over the web.

  • http://www.gumption.com Jennifer b.

    You must find out what you have before you can do anything with it. Sites that have not conducted content audits or kept their inventory up-to-date tend to be adept at showing the internal company silos all over the web.

  • http://www.cmsmyth.com Jeff Cram

    Fantastic article. Could not agree more and wanted to emphasize your point that this needs to be a human process. While tedious, getting down and dirty with the content is the only way to have a strong foundation for future content strategy and IA work. Automated tools are a crutch that will lead to disaster down the line. Thanks for the CMS Myth shout out as well!
    Jeff Cram
    ISITE Design & CMS Mythbuster

  • http://www.cmsmyth.com Jeff Cram

    Fantastic article. Could not agree more and wanted to emphasize your point that this needs to be a human process. While tedious, getting down and dirty with the content is the only way to have a strong foundation for future content strategy and IA work. Automated tools are a crutch that will lead to disaster down the line. Thanks for the CMS Myth shout out as well!
    Jeff Cram
    ISITE Design & CMS Mythbuster

  • Bailey

    I love this. We recently did a complete overhaul and a document much like this saved my life. Glad to know it wasn’t just my OCD tendencies in overdrive!

  • Bailey

    I love this. We recently did a complete overhaul and a document much like this saved my life. Glad to know it wasn’t just my OCD tendencies in overdrive!

  • http://www.bnj.com Jean

    Yes! You’re preaching to the choir here but a content inventory gives you visibility into what’s there, which in turn fuels the imagination for what’s possible.

  • http://www.bnj.com Jean

    Yes! You’re preaching to the choir here but a content inventory gives you visibility into what’s there, which in turn fuels the imagination for what’s possible.

  • http://www.intentionaldesign.ca Rahel Bailie

    Thanks for putting this out there as a voice of authority. I can’t tell you how many project proposals have overlooked the content analysis step altogether, and of course, it affects everything down the line. Can we make this into a giant stencil and paint corporate boardrooms with it?

  • http://www.intentionaldesign.ca Rahel Bailie

    Thanks for putting this out there as a voice of authority. I can’t tell you how many project proposals have overlooked the content analysis step altogether, and of course, it affects everything down the line. Can we make this into a giant stencil and paint corporate boardrooms with it?

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/dsprick Dedrick Sprick

    I like what you had to say. I also must confess frustration with clients who seem to dismiss the “qualitative” audit (e.g. content accuracy, consistency, relevance, etc) as part of the inventory.
    I often provide advice for changes in content based on what is known about reader behavior (e.g. reading strategies), but I often feel like I am not heard by the client. I have been thinking about keeping the qualitative audit as a separate piece and only bringing it up on an individual case basis as a result. Do you think that is a good idea?

  • http://www.twitter.com/mbloomstein Margot Bloomstein

    Yes, yes, YES! A content inventory might be hell, but it’s a damn satisfying, “oooh, the fire’s bright today!” hell in which you can be proud of your tanlines.
    What about using a content inventory as a starter or precursor to a prescriptive content matrix? As you noted, it’s daunting and foolish to start writing without an inventory of what you’ve already got; in my experience, it’s inefficient and naive to write without a prescriptive tool that tells you what you need to write (or aggregate), appropriate character counts, key messages, and tone of voice.

  • http://www.twitter.com/mbloomstein Margot Bloomstein

    Yes, yes, YES! A content inventory might be hell, but it’s a damn satisfying, “oooh, the fire’s bright today!” hell in which you can be proud of your tanlines.
    What about using a content inventory as a starter or precursor to a prescriptive content matrix? As you noted, it’s daunting and foolish to start writing without an inventory of what you’ve already got; in my experience, it’s inefficient and naive to write without a prescriptive tool that tells you what you need to write (or aggregate), appropriate character counts, key messages, and tone of voice.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/dsprick Dedrick Sprick

    I like what you had to say. I also must confess frustration with clients who seem to dismiss the “qualitative” audit (e.g. content accuracy, consistency, relevance, etc) as part of the inventory.
    I often provide advice for changes in content based on what is known about reader behavior (e.g. reading strategies), but I often feel like I am not heard by the client. I have been thinking about keeping the qualitative audit as a separate piece and only bringing it up on an individual case basis as a result. Do you think that is a good idea?

  • http://twitter.com/carleecomm Carlee Potter

    Hi Kristina, I’m an avid reader, 1st time commenter. Got a question for you, or anyone who might care to jump in with some advice…
    I’m just wrapping up a contract gig doing a usability review of a company intranet (approx. 700 staff). The earliest recommendation that became obvious to me is that they need to DO A CONTENT AUDIT. 
    As any IA aficionado knows, this is music to few people’s ears but I was pretty confident of selling them on the idea because of all the bonus WINS tied to this harrowing task. It is clear (in my opinion) that quantitative and qualitative content analysis will simultaneously begin to fix EVERY OTHER PROBLEM they must address. 
    Just a few examples of work I advised them to do in conjunction: 
    - Analyse metadata and test content findability to help determine where problems with search engine lie (engine or editors?).
    - Note content that fails to meet writing for web standards, so they know what to train content editor’s in (and what to put in Style Guides).
    - Measure alignment of intranet content to business objectives to ensure project time and funding keeps coming.
    And of course many, many more. But their initial response is time & budget won’t allow for an all-content audit. 
    MY QUESTION IS: is it a worthwhile/viable “next best thing” approach to audit just one section of the site’s content first (they want to do the chunk which mostly relates to frontline staff – and it’s not necessarily all in the one category) to see what improvements, roadmaps, productivity can be gained from that.
    I’d like to think what’ll be gained is, they’ll realise the value of doing the rest but, logistically speaking, does anyone know if there are some unforeseen (at least to me) hurdles they’re likely to run into by doing it this way?

  • http://www.sexyfocusedambitious.com/ Lauryn Doll

    I’m very grateful for this and other links about content auditing and a content inventory. I have a site with over 200 articles I have to do this for but I’ll do it! 

  • Guest

    Hi,

    I’m curious as to why you use a static excel sheet and not a dynamic database?  Would this not be more efficient, in terms of data management (data being content, and anything else you want to query!).  

  • Linguapril

    I am a Content Strategist and I believe Excel spreadsheets are antiquated for keeping content. Certainly there is a better way. Why do large companies insist on using a numbers and math tool for content? I’m tempted to partner with a software creator and design an out-of-the box program. Ugh.

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